Amihai held the border guards in his hard, straight-in-the-eyeballs gaze for a full two minutes. They weren’t letting him and his best buddy Razi past the roadblock. His look told the troopers that he was acquiescing in their orders not because he was scared. And not because he didn’t think he had full right to vault over the barricades and dash straight into the heart of Paris Square. It was just 200 meters up the street, the epicenter of the demonstration in front of the prime minister’s residence. He gave in because Razi was the quiet, law-abiding type, not a barricade buster.
Also, he’d finally managed to get the boy out and on the street after months of quarantine and self-imposed confinement and he wasn’t going to give him any excuse to chicken out and go home. Which, in fact, Razi was trying to do. Amihai grabbed the back of his friend’s t-shirt just in time and pulled him back.
“Come on.” He swiveled Razi in the direction of the stream of demonstrators, some with signs, some in alien costumes, who in compliance with the police were heading down Abraham Lincoln Street.
“They’re not letting us in. Let’s go home.”
Amihai did not let go. “It’s just a detour.” He pulled up his mask to cover his nose, to show Razi that he meant business.
Razi resisted his push. “Look at that family with the four little kids. What are they doing here? Don’t they know it’s dangerous? And you promised me …”
“Girls. I know. Just look around you.”
Razi half-swiveled his neck to the right and left as if he were scared to look any further.
“Not my type.”
They followed the flow as the demonstrators turned to the left, into a narrow backstreet that led down to Agron Street. Razi gave a dubious look at the stone walls that enclosed the alley on either side.
“I think viral droplets probably are hanging in the air here. There’s no ventilation.”
Amihai grabbed the back of Razi’s neck and stopped him short. “Razi,” he whispered in the kid’s left ear. “Two things are going to happen tonight and neither of them involve you getting a virus. The first is that Bibi will resign and the second is that you will get laid.”
Razi shook his head sorrowfully. He looked at his friend. “I don’t know about Bibi, but you’ll be the one who gets a girl for the night.”
Amihai couldn’t deny that he was the better-looking of the two. He had the dark bedroom eyes that women fall for, his beard clipped to give him that rough but youthful no-time-to-shave look, and the muscles that his tank-top revealed were well-defined. But a friend is a friend and he’d make sure that Razi would be the center of attention.
They emerged onto Agron and turned left to ascend toward Paris Square. But the street was packed and the crowd dense well before they reached the main intersection that the square presided over. A group to their left was shouting “Hon! Shilton! Olam Tahton!” Money! Power! Underworld! On the right, a guy with a megaphone was trying to get people to sing about the world being a narrow bridge. Amihai let Razi stop at the crowd’s penumbra to get charged up a bit. He glanced at his phone.
“Wow. They’re reporting 15,000.” He watched Razi’s eyes survey the crowd. “That means upwards of 7,000 women.”
“Where’s the one who takes her shirt off?”
Amihai sighed. “You can see that on your computer. We’re here for the real thing.”
Razi seemed to lose all resolve. “Can I go home? I haven’t seen the last installment of Tehran yet.”
Amihai grabbed his buddy’s hand. “Bro, we’re going in.” And he plowed through the crowd up toward the prime minister’s residence, dragging Razi behind him.
Somewhere between a teenager waving an Israeli flag and a grizzled octogenarian anarchist waving a black one Razi tripped and fell down. Amihai turned around and saw a figure bending down to help him. Her loose shorts and oversized shirt hinted at a figure that was not as slender as what Amihai himself usually went for, but she was definitely acceptable and what’s more she was taking his buddy by the hand and helping him up.
“I’m so sorry,” she was saying. Then she exclaimed: “Razi!” She gave him a big hug. “Bibi’s corrupt,” her mask proclaimed. She said: “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“I came with my friend Amihai.” Razi looked around, but Amihai was nowhere to be seen. “I mean, because I think Bibi has to go.”
He had intended to tell Amihai that he knew this woman, Inbar, from the PPE program at the university, and that he shouldn’t get excited because she had moved in with her boyfriend last summer.
She squeezed his hand. “Well, it’s good to see you out here and not just on Zoom.”
“Yeah, Amihai pretty much forced me out. I guess he’s right. I’ve sort of gotten addicted to my laptop.” He grimaced. It was the wrong thing to say, he was sure.
“You’re hardly the only one.”
“So, how’s, um …” He tried to remember the name of her boyfriend.
“Benny? He got to like Netflix better than me.”
“Ah,” Razi said. “So you split?”
“Sometimes you need a pandemic to learn the truth about someone.” She gazed off toward the prime minister’s residence.
Razi felt a warm feeling rise from his groin to his belly to his chest to his face, where it broke out into a smile hidden by his mask. Inbar looked at him. Maybe she saw the smile anyway.
A couple with plastic horns tooted loudly as they passed. The people nearby responded with shouts and cheers.
“What’s it like to be outside?” she asked
He thought a minute. “I’ve got this good feeling but I don’t know what it is. It’s something I haven’t felt in a long time.”
“I think,” Inbar said, “that it might be hope.”
A man and a woman, each with a child in their laps, vacated a spot on the curb, and Inbar motioned for Razi to sit down. She had surprised herself. What was it about bumping into Razi that had raised her spirits? Their two years in the same university program had not led to any more of a friendship than that involved in the occasional coffee along with a bunch of other students, and then a nodding acquaintance during Zoom classes. Benny had been electric and fun in his good moods but morose when he was down and domineering when he smoked too much hash. She’d assumed she’d find someone else with the same vibrancy minus the bad parts. Razi was not that. He was something else.
He directed his gaze downwards as he told her about himself, on his hands clasping his knees, only occasionally stealing a glance at her. What caught her eye was how supple and gentle that clasp was, as if his knees were a baby he was cradling in his arms. His initial shyness gone, the words flowed out of him, about Montesquieu, about Tamar the Mossad agent in Tehran and her betrayal of her lover Milad, about his encouragement of his little sister’s aspiration to serve in Unit 8200, and about his mother’s breast cancer diagnosis. He listened carefully to her own stories about her family and her uncertainty about whether to give up PPE and go in to medicine, which is what she’d wanted from the start but had been afraid she would not succeed at. It felt like the two of them were alone on a park bench on a quiet night and not in the middle of a crowd of angry citizens loudly calling for a new direction in Israeli politics.
She didn’t know how much time had passed when he looked up and around him and then at her. “Is this what you’re supposed to do at a demonstration? Sit and talk? I’ve never been to a demonstration before. It’s my first time.”
“So let’s stand up and shout for a while.” She touched him lightly on the forearm and he took her hand in his. They wove through the crowd, taking up whatever slogan the people around them were shouting. At one point they passed by his friend Amihai, who gave a thumbs up, but she was pretty sure Razi didn’t even notice.
At about midnight people began leaving and a half hour later they each accepted a trash bag from an organizer. Together they collected discarded leaflets, signs, and empty bags of potato chips. After placing their full bags on the pile at the corner they walked to the middle of the intersection. Inbar wasn’t sure what to expect, or to say. Neither spoke for a long moment.
Finally Razi broke the silence. “Do you think it would be ok,” he suggested, “if we put down our masks for a second so we can see each other’s faces?”
She complied, and he followed suit. “That was nice,” he said, when their masks were back in place. “I guess it’s time to head home. Will you be here next week?”
“Sure, because now I have something to hope for.”
As he walked down Keren Hayesod, past the barricades that the border guards had moved aside, he heard the sound of someone running up behind him.
“Razi!” Amihai’s voice called out. Amihai grabbed Razi’s shoulder and pulled down his mask so he could take in some air. “What are you doing? Why are you alone?”
“I’m going home.”
“But where’s that woman?” Amihai was in despair. “What happened? Did she dump you? Did you screw up?” He was as angry at himself as at Razi, as he was also on his own, having failed to fascinate any of the 7,000 women in the crowd.
“We had a great time. I’ll see her here next Saturday night.”
Amihai shook his head in exasperation. “This was your chance, man!”
“To get rid of Bibi?” Razi gave his friend a chapha on the ear.
Amihai glared at him. “To get a woman.”
Razi shrugged. “Hey. It takes time. You can’t do it all in a night.”
Haim Watzman’s Necessary Stories appear in The Times of Israel every four weeks. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and a collection of his stories, Necessary Stories. For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com. To receive an email notification each time a new story appears, sign up for the Necessary Stories mailing list.